Pirates, Librarians and Open Source Capitalists: New Alliances in the Copyright Wars

Chapter 8
Pirates, Librarians and Open Source Capitalists: New Alliances in the Copyright Wars

Martin Fredriksson

‘Say hello to your new librarian’

On 28 June 2012 the Swedish Library Association published a full page ad in one of the country’s largest newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, where an elderly man in a three-piece suit is looking sternly at the reader under the heading ‘Say hello to your new librarian’. The ad declares that ‘There is a silent revolution going on in our public libraries. Not long ago, libraries were independent. Free to select, buy and recommend literature and factual books from amongst all the books that were in print. Then came the e-book’. The Library Association criticises the publishers’ strict control over the distribution of e-books, particularly their refusal to release new titles to the libraries and their rigid price policies. The ad states that while the e-book is a wonderful opportunity for libraries, it is both an opportunity and a threat for publishers: ‘E-books are potential cash cows – provided that the threat of libraries’ independent choices and purchases are eliminated’. Here the libraries’ aim to freely and publicly disseminate culture and knowledge is in contrast to the commercial interests of the publishers who threaten to take control over the libraries: ‘Your new librarian likes money more than books and owns a large publishing company’ (Svensk Biblioteksförening, 2012).

This is not a unique Swedish debate. Over recent years, the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Association (EBLIDA) has been running a similar campaign that tries to draw attention to how the control that the publishers impose on the e-book format prevents the libraries from fulfilling their obligation to ‘guarantee free access to content, information and culture for all European citizens’ (EBLIDA, 2013). EBLIDA points to how the licensing of e-books controls the libraries’ acquisition policies, but also how it violates users’ privacy by collecting and storing personal user data and limits their access to the material since it restricts how, where and on what devices an e-book can be consumed (EBLIDA, 2012). In an American context similar initiatives have been taken, for instance by the campaign ‘e-books for libraries’ (ebooksforlibraries.com).


Figure 8.1 ‘Say hello to your new librarian’, The Swedish Library Association (Svensk Biblioteksförening)

The library organisations’ interest in copyright issues is not limited to e-books. Librarians have mounted the barricades against extensive copyright legislation several times in the past. In her book Terms of Use Eva Hemmungs Wirtén points out that few ‘institutions are as affected by the threats now waged against the public domain and the increased permission culture that proliferates in its wake as libraries’. She goes on to discuss how libraries and affiliated organisations were among the most vocal opponents against the limitations to the public domain imposed by the American Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 (Hemmungs Wirtén, 2008: 128). In 2005 the respected British institution, The UK Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA), issued ‘The Adelphi Charter on creativity, innovation and intellectual property’, which called for a limitation to the expansion of copyright law which threatens creativity and the public domain (RSA, 2005). A few years later similar initiatives were taken by the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) which took a stand against the copyright implications of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA). The Australian copyright scholar Lynn Spender argues that the positions of RSA and ALIA represent ‘the spread of support for copyleft principles in the upper echelons of the legal, scientific and artistic establishments’ (Spender, 2009: 124).

This scepticism towards copyright expansionism is a consequence of the library’s basic function. As Siva Vaidyanathan points out in his book The Anarchist in the Library: ‘Libraries are leaks in the information economy. As a state-funded institution that enables efficient distribution of texts and information to people who can’t afford to get it commercially, the library pokes holes in the commercial information system’ (Vaidyanathan, 2004: 123). As such the library is, just like the pirate, at conflict with the content industries that constantly attempts to fill such leaks with the help of stricter copyright legislation and harsher implementation.

This chapter starts from the assumption that libraries are, if not piratical, then at least articulate some of the conflicts over authorship, copyright and access to knowledge that have come to underpin the debates on piracy and copyright since the 1990s. Piracy and copyright has been a recurring theme politicised throughout history (c.f. Fredriksson, 2009, 2012, 2014; Johns, 2009). The clash between intellectual property and freedom of information – sometimes referred to as the copyright wars – was intensified by the proliferation of file-sharing technologies that followed in the wake of Napster, and the expansion of intellectual property rights that caught on in the 1990s. The conflicts intensified even more in 2006 when Swedish authorities initiated a prosecution against the internationally acknowledged file-sharing site The Pirate Bay, partly at the request of American media companies (Burkart, 2013; Fredriksson, 2013; Rydell and Sundberg, 2009). Over time these debates over enclosure and access to knowledge have given rise to a growing popular resistance against what is perceived as copyright expansionism: a legislative development towards enclosure and privatisation of culture and information. Today this pirate movement can be said to stretch from hardcore ‘hacktivists’ such as Anonymous to national political parties – so-called Pirate Parties – that seek parliamentary representation in order to protect the freedom of speech, access to information and rights to privacy in a digital world.

The first part of this chapter will discuss the intersections between apparently disparate actors such as the pirate movement, libraries, and academia and how they relate to semi-commercial actors offering free access to information such as Google Books. This section partly draws on research interviews from an ongoing project about pirate parties in the United States, Europe, and Australia.1 The second part of the chapter asks whether actors like The Pirate Bay and Google Books can be regarded as new kinds of libraries, and how we in that case define a library: if it is just an institution that provides access to as much information as possible or if it also fulfils other functions. Eventually the text widens the scope and frames the discussion about libraries and access to information within the context of a new logic of open source capitalism. Here the increased use of cloud storage and data mining problematises the debates about free access to information as user data emerges as the new commodity that is extracted, shared and exploited in the information society.

The Pirate, the Librarian and the Open Source Capitalist

The first Pirate Party was formed in Sweden in 2006, largely as a reaction to the police raid and following prosecution against The Pirate Bay, and the implementation of stricter copyright laws. Similar initiatives were soon taken in several other countries and they all shared a common focus on access to knowledge and protection of privacy in a digital society (Burkart, 2013; Fredriksson, 2013, 2015). It should come as no surprise that members of the Pirate Party have shown great enthusiasm for the librarians’ cause. The president of the youth branch of the Swedish Pirate Party, Gustav Nipe, expresses a deep concern over the e-book issue and claims that he is looking towards librarians for mutual support. Aligning with the libraries is not only an attempt to gain public credibility, it is also fully consistent with the pirate movement’s fundamental views on information politics:

I’ve noticed that the same discussion that took place when they introduced the public libraries 100 years ago is going on again today. ‘If people will be able to borrow books for free no one will want to buy them’. It is the same argumentation … But then the politicians took a stand and said that it is important for people to be able to borrow books. There is an educational ideal that is more important than the publisher’s right to make even more money. But now it’s not so much a political issue anymore. (G. Nipe, interview, 1 November 2012)2

The same historical comparison is made by the Swedish Pirate Party’s secretary, Jan Lindgren (J. Lindgren, interview, 10 October 2012), and this strong identification with libraries is also evident in many national Pirate Parties. Zacary Adams Green of the New York Pirate Party, for instance, talks at length about the social importance of public libraries and the need to form alliances with librarians, and he concludes that ‘The Pirate Party is basically “The Library Party”. The Pirate Bay is a library’ (L. Brunner and Z. Adams Green, interview, 2 April 2012).

The parallel between file-sharing networks and libraries is often evoked by copyright critics, and Adams Green refers to a widely shared blog-post he wrote for the Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge’s website which compared The Pirate Bay to New York Public Library:

The way media piracy works is that one person or group purchases a work, and then shares it with millions of other people. This supposedly deprives the author or artist of those millions of people’s money. One group has acquired over 50 million media items, and makes each of them available to approximately 20 million people – which must be a tremendous hit to creative professionals’ wallets. This notorious institution is called the New York Public Library. (falkvinge.net/2012/12/07/the-pirate-bay-is-the-worlds-most-efficient-public-library/)

The blog-post goes on to argue that The Pirate Bay is an even larger library, but the ‘reason that The Pirate Bay is offensive, and the New York Public Library is not, is because of its efficiency’ (Adams Green, 2012).

The idea that the internet is in itself basically a library, and as such the largest and most efficient one ever made, is common among many pirate activists, who see the internet as the ultimate medium of enlightenment and regard any attempts to control its flow of information as limitations to free speech and the public access to knowledge. In this regard, file sharing, particularly through the BitTorrent protocol, is often conceptualised as the ultimate technology of information exchange as it is free and egalitarian, and relies on mutual exchange of information between collaborating individuals rather than on centralised, top-down distribution of content from producers, corporations or authorities to passive consumers. File sharing is thus articulated not as a matter of entertainment but as a tool of enlightenment and education. Jay Emerson from the New York Pirate Party describes this very vividly when he talks about how he discovered the magnitude of academic literature that had been posted on The Pirate Bay:

I wasn’t thinking outside of the box at that time. I was thinking music and movies. But then when the books came into it, that was a different moment. Then I was thinking to myself. These books … . The whole purpose of the university back in the days was to send your kids off to it because that’s where they had the libraries, the education, the expertise. That is no longer the case … everybody should have access to the education and the knowledge of all those books … it’s a humanitarian effort to get that out there (J. Emerson, interview, 21 April 2012)

A cornerstone of the pirate ethos, as it is expressed by most Pirate Party members, is thus that information technology has huge potential to promote public education by creating virtually unlimited and universally accessible digital libraries, but that this is stifled by too restrictive copyright laws.

Just as the pirate ideologists tend to articulate values and positions that are traditionally well established in the library sector, they also draw on a belief in openness and free dissemination of scientific knowledge that has a long tradition in academia. These freedoms are often perceived as under threat by current policies and there are legions of examples of how an expanding IP-regime stifles research, for instance through the proliferation on gene patents (Boyle, 1996; Halbert, 2005). In his foreword to J.D. Lasica’s book Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation, Howard Rheingold sets out with a reflection on his own experience as a scholar and author:

If you look at my earlier books … you might notice that there are more quotes and longer quotes, than in my most recent book, Smart Mobs. The explanation for that is that ‘fair use’ – the fundamental scholarly tradition of building upon the (accurately attributed) work of others (?) – has been chipped away by large ‘content owners’. (Rheingold, 2005: vii)

This suggests that academics and ideologically dedicated file-sharers might share a common experience of having their freedom of expressions limited by copyright law.